Cruel Britannia

Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture. Ian Cobain

A review of Ian Cobain's book 'Cruel Britannia. A Secret History of Torture' …  (

Britain's public and its government are currently devoting significant attention to the behaviour of the nation's broadcast and print media. Both Parliament and the people are, understandably, concerned to ensure that the powerful Murdoch News Corporation and the equally influential BBC are conducting their affairs properly and with decency. The British people are entitled to know, and indeed demand, that newsgathering is done using correct procedures and that information relating to matters of public concern will be disseminated, whether or not it causes embarrassment to those in positions of power.

It would appear, however, that this commendable degree of scrutiny over Britain's media does not extend to the country's military and intelligence gathering services. Ian Cobain's excellent new book, Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture, reveals with a well researched investigation, that Britain's secret services supported by the military and authorised by successive governments have systematically used torture against enemy personnel and insurgents over many decades.

While Cobain has done an admirable job in providing ample evidence to support his assertion that torture was and continues to be a pillar of British security policy, this is not the most remarkable aspect of his book. It would be strange indeed if, having used torture in every field of conflict the UK has been engaged in since World War II, that there was an absence of such evidence. Cobain does indeed detail at length the sorry history of Britain's use of torture but what his book also reveals is the astonishing lengths that British governments go to in order to deny and cover-up that which is so well known to its many victims (and the UK's allies) across four continents.

Unlike the United States, where former president George Bush has stated publicly that he authorised `water-boarding' suspects (a practice widely recognised as torture), Britain has consistently denied employing what the Americans euphemistically describe as enhanced interrogation techniques.

On some occasions British denials have taken the form of a Jesuitical-like redefining of what constitutes torture. Responding, for example, to allegations of torture in Northern Ireland during the early 1970s, the then British government commissioned Sir Edward Compton to carry out a limited investigation. His conclusion was that physical ill-treatment (hooding, wall-standing, white noise, sleep deprivation, food deprivation) had in fact occurred but that this did not constitute physical brutality and therefore acquitted his employer of torture. Evidence of prisoners being also routinely beaten was apparently overlooked by the inquiry.

More often, though, British governments have simply lied about the brutal methods employed by its security services. By way of illustration, Cobain refers to a statement made by Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram to the House of Commons in June 2004, `We are not aware' he said, `of any incidents in which United Kingdom interrogators are alleged to have used hooding as an interrogation technique'. A claim he repeated to Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights in spite of the fact that he had been aware from the previous September of the use of hoods during interrogation. Evidence of his awareness was to emerge some years later at a subsequent inquiry.

When the issue of torture is occasionally publicly aired in Britain, as in the inquiry referred to above, the discussion tends to be sidetracked into a debate over whether the end justifies the means. Moreover, the conversation to date is usually set in a short-term context and always in the absence of adequate information. Such obfuscation misses the point that torturing an enemy may, at best, deal with the symptoms of a problem but it cannot address the underlying issue. Containing an insurgency is not the same as settling a long running and deeply rooted dispute.

Ian Cobain's book, Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture, provides the evidence and argument that are essential for a properly enlightened debate to take place about Britain's use of torture. Throughout this work, the author leaves us in no doubt that torture occurs and is endorsed at the highest level. What is not so clear is whether Cobain's shocking exposé will generate sufficient outrage that the British government will be obliged to desist from violating its prisoners' human rights. Worthy though the book is in every other respect, it provides little grounds for optimism that Britannia is becoming less cruel. END

Tommy McKearney 

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